Tag Archives: Reformation

History Brings Hope: The Church in Times of Crisis, Part 1

As we weather the coronavirus, we must be vigilant and wise, while retaining helpfulness to our neighbors and hopefulness to a world awash in fear. This is a moment to be thankful for local churches and charities as people under economic and emotional pressure experience the weight of very trying circumstances.

It is right to lament and repent for the moral scandals that often plague religious communities. Today’s 24/7 news cycle brings negative news with an immediacy that is jarring…and helps us forget all the good things that are happening through the efforts of millions of caring people, including people in our local churches.

In this essay, I want to recount some bright moments when the Church expressed her best virtues and served sacrificially, even when under great duress. Generosity is baked into the gospel and the mission of the Church. The Apostle Paul spent years evangelizing Jews and Gentiles – and he called upon the non-Jewish believers in Christ to sacrificially give toward their Jewish brothers and sisters suffering under a severe famine in Judea (Acts 11-20; 2 Corinthians 8-9). In addition to examples of Jesus and biblical texts extolling helping others, here are some heroic moments that can inspire us in our current situations:

249-250 AD: Emperor Decius declares an empire-wide assault on Christians, including demanding that they sacrifice to Caesar, and the destruction of buildings and libraries. At the same time, a serious plague came upon several places in the empire (coincidence?). The governors charged with carrying out this evil edict petitioned the Emperor and requested a delay in persecution. Why? Because it was Christians that were offering care and comfort to plague victims! Even under severe pressure, they were caring for all, enemy and friend alike.

440s and 450s: As Attila the Hun and other outsiders carve up the Western Roman Empire, it is the Church that maintains order and distributes food amidst the conquests. The Popes negotiated with the conquerors and ameliorated (in places) some of the atrocities and enable food to get to the populace.

6th and 7th centuries: The Benedictine Order and other monastic groups are doing much more than praying. They are establishing the first hostels for visitor, hospices for the dying, and rudimentary hospitals for the sick. They also add to the overall economy with sustainable agriculture, waterwheel technology and generosity.

12th-15th centuries: Long before the Reformation, Roman Catholic scholars are teaching the goodness of free trade and natural pricing in contrast to the mercantile controls governments often placed on goods. The University of Salamanca in Spain led the way in affirming what we now know as the principles of ethical free enterprise, in service of, “The brotherhood of Mankind.”

The Reformation (16th century): We see a leap forward in affirming “ordinary” work as equally important to God as “religious” labor. Without denigrating the importance of sacerdotal leadership, all Protestant streams affirm the priesthood of all believers (see Exodus 19:6 and I Peter 2:9-10), offering one’s daily efforts as worship before God. And this led to unprecedented expansions in charitable giving, entrepreneurship, and economic change.

In the next essay, we will examine the last five centuries of goodness through the Church, without sugarcoating the historical challenges. May we be inspired in our context toward creativity and innovation.

The Reformations of 1517 and a Prayer

It was 500 years ago that a monk, pastor and theologian names Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for debate on the Wittenburg Door ay his university. His intent was purifying and reforming the abuses connected with indulgences. The unforeseen consequences? The division of Western Christianity into Protestant vs. Roman Catholic – and the Protestant themselves continuing their divisions.

There were actually five reformations during the next 50 years after Brother Martin’s posting. The first was the Lutheran one that spread throughout parts of Germany and Scandinavia and influenced Christian traditions everywhere. Luther’s great cry that salvation was sola fide (faith alone) united all Protestants, even as his views on the sacraments and church structure were not always popular.

The second reformation originated in Zurich, under the leadership of priest and humanist scholar Zwingli. He agreed with Luther on grace, but his zeal led to different views on communion, church order and certain theological emphases.

The second Reformed stream in Switzerland was in Geneva, led by John Calvin, the most influential theologian in Protestant history. Calvin was a scholar and his Geneva became the missionary training center for Reformed leaders throughout Europe and the New World.

The third stream was the Anglican tradition. Beginning with King Henry VIII in 1532-34 and stabilized by Elizabeth I in 1559, the Church of England represented a via media between Protestant and Roman Catholic structures and theologies. The Anglican church itself would be torn by conflict for over a century and a half between High Church traditionalists and Puritan reformers and (later) Methodist enthusiasts.

The Anabaptist communities represent the most radical reformers of all. Unlike their Magisterial counterparts (who advocated one religion for each nation), Anabaptist believed that church membership was voluntary and the ecclesial and secular powers must remain separate. They also affirmed that baptism was reserved for those who has a personal experience of conversion; therefore, no infant baptism. They were also pacifists, declaring the incompatibility of true Christianity and the exercise of military power. They were unpopular among all the other traditions, with over 100,000 martyrs in the 16th century.

The final reforming impulse is found in the Roman Catholic church. At the on-again, off-again Council of Trent (1545-1564), the worst moral and political abuses were addressed and traditional doctrines and disciplines reaffirmed. The new Jesuit order led the charge for reform under the inspired leadership of Ignatius of Loyola.

As we reflect on this moment, both lament and celebration are in order. Sober thinking leaders of all traditions acknowledge some of the zealous excesses of all traditions and even Roman Catholic leader affirm that is would have been wise to listen to Luther and not merely resist his ideas. The good news is that out of both the affirmations of faith and the ashes of conflict, many of the key ideas underpinning Western Civilization are strengthened, from the importance of the individual, freedom of conscience (after the exhaustion of more than a century of war), the rule of la (Lex Rex) and the goodness of all work, bother clerical and lay occupations.